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"Too Pro-Choice?"

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Garance has an interesting excerpt from a speech by John Kerry, in which he asserts that the Democrats are “too pro-choice” and E.J Dionne asks “Why do you think you didn’t give a speech like this in, say, May or June of 2004?” Dionne’s implication is that such a speech would have been politically useful. But would it?

I can certainly see some political value in signaling respect for respect for supporters of abortion criminalization, and I don’t believe that Democrats running for national office can say all the same things about reproductive freedom that I would. But in the particular form Kerry articulates it here, the argument seems the worst of all worlds. First of all, very annoyingly it claims (straight out of the anti-choice Book of Myths) that “science” is substantially changing the abortion debate and greatly altering viability, when in fact there’s no evidence that this is true and the vast majority of abortions continue take place before viability. Kerry’s argument in general concedes (wholly unearned) moral high ground to the abortion criminalization lobby and, even worse, never bothers to explain why it shouldn’t have its way. The structure of Kerry’s speech is essentially “abortion is really bad but should remain legal because it just should.” That’s only a good approach if you want to set up the debate to lose, and as long as you have nominally pro-choice policy positions you’re unlikely to receive credit for it anyway. (After all, Kerry was in fact very squishy in defensing abortion throughout the 2004, but never gets retrospective “credit” for it anyway; you apparently can never be squishy enough. Which in a way makes sense; if I was an anti-choicer, I would want a politician who supports my substantive positions, not one who says that he or she “respects” me.)

If Democratic politicians have to signal respect for “pro-lifers,” it seems to me that rather than saying that abortion is immoral but should remain legal for reasons we won’t get into, much better is to focus in what abortion bans would actually do. Wouldn’t something like this be both better in the merits and more effective strategically?

Many people in the audience believe that abortion is morally wrong. And no matter what people’s moral position is, we can all agree that preventing unwanted pregnancies is better than abortions. However, our opponents take very extreme positions that are unlikely to achieve these goals anyway. The Republican platform supports a constitutional amendment that would make abortion first-degree murder in all 50 states; I don’t think most Americans support that approach. But even if it passed, the experience of other countries suggests that there would still be a large number of abortions; the only difference is that more poor women will be maimed and killed in back-alley abortions. That’s not effective, and it’s not fair. Giving women the access to contraception, education, medical and child care they need, on the other hand, will both protect women’s freedom and lead to fewer abortions. State coercion doesn’t work, as our history makes clear. This is something we should all agree on.

I’m no speechwriter, so I don’t know exactly how you’d phrase it, but it seems to be that to be useful any gambit like Kerry’s should 1)make clear why one is pro-choice whatever their moral reservations, 2)should focus on areas where the “pro-life” position is unpopular rather than uncritically accepting opposition frames (or, worse, repeating their erroneous claims), and 3)focus on why criminalization fails to be effective or meet basic standards of equality and fairness even if you support its ends. Kerry’s way of discussing the issue fails on all three counts.

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